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Veterinary Medical Hospital, designed for the Oakland Zoo by Noll & Tam Architects (Courtesy of Oakland Zoo)

The animals aren't the only ones who will benefit from a sprawling new veterinary hospital and a unique exhibit showcasing California native species. The Oakland Zoo expansion projects are expected to pump roughly $111 million into the city and county over the next few years, according to an economic impact report prepared for the zoo.

Last month, after 13 years of planning, negotiating with neighbors, replanning and renegotiating, the zoo got the final approval it needs to move ahead with plans to expand by 54 acres into Knowland Park by building a 17,000 square-foot veterinary hospital; the California Trails exhibit featuring condors, mountain lions and grizzly bears; an aerial gondola; an overnight camping area and an interpretive center.

The projects will kick off this month with a groundbreaking for the animal hospital and wrap up in 2015. They are expected to bring money into the region from the purchase of everything from construction materials, supplies and services to food, lodging, gas and transportation for workers on the job, according to a 2009 report by the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, an organization developed to grow businesses, attract capital and create jobs in Alameda and Contra Costa County.

"Everyone understands our cultural value, but they don't understand our economic impact," said Oakland Zoo expansion project director Nik Dehejia.

Wil Hardee, president of the Oakland African-American Chamber of Commerce, called the project the "best use for most people."


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"We all benefit from it," Hardee said. "Let's not (have) such tunnel vision as not to consider as to how it impacts the economic vitality of the whole region. The zoo is one of those attractions that brings dollars from everywhere else and enhances the economy."

Construction of the veterinary hospital will cost about $11.75 million, and the trails exhibit will cost roughly $60.25 million to build. The $111 million figure from the report takes into account those construction costs plus an additional $39 million in "indirect economic impacts," such as meals and gas paid for by construction workers, cash spent at Oakland construction material supply companies and lodging for overnight work crews.

"Basically, it's the recirculation of money," Dehejia said. "We pay a contractor, he buys food, and that dollar gets circulated into the economy. Everything that he is buying is then helping somebody else."

The projects will employ about 200 workers over the next several years and between 30 and 60 permanent and temporary jobs at the zoo, officials said. The vet hospital is expected to open next year, with the entire project completed by 2015.

"We're just excited to be able to infuse some additional energy into the local economy," said the zoo's Executive Director Joel Parrott. Zoo officials said the projects are funded by a variety of sources, including private donations and local bond measures. "Most of the donor money is outside of Oakland, so it allows for us to put Oaklanders to work for construction, and later on when we operate, we'll be able to add jobs, including teen employment," Parrott said.

The plan was approved in 1998, but because it was amended, it had to go again before the Planning Commission, which approved it in May in a 3-1 vote.

Opponents filed an appeal, which was shot down with a unanimous vote by the Oakland City Council on June 21.

The vote capped a long struggle between the zoo and environmentalists.

The East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, the California Native Grasslands Association, and Friends of Knowland Park filed the appeal because they claimed that the Planning Commission violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it didn't require a full environmental impact report, despite significant new and substantially more severe impacts than the original plan.

The zoo's plans give it sweeping views of San Francisco and five bridges from a hilltop, something opponents say should be available to users of the land as open space. Environmentalists also say the plan threatens roaming foxes and coyotes as well as the Alameda whipsnake, a threatened species, and endangers rare native plans, such as the bristly leptosiphon and purple needlegrass. The zoo plans to remove 4 acres of purple needlegrass and replace it with 12 acres of the purple needlegrass in another location.

Ruth Malone, the co-chairwoman of Friends of Knowland Park, said her group has until July 22 to file a lawsuit. "Right now, we are in discussions with our attorneys and reviewing all our options," she said.

Malone said that when considering economic benefits of the expansion plans, "the larger question is whether we want to continue to sell off our irreplaceable natural resources for short-term financial gains."

"It's one thing for a private developer to do that out of pure greed. For the zoo to do that in the name of conservation, however, is just unconscionable. Once these rare plant and animal communities are gone, they can never be put back again," Malone said. Representatives from the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society have also said it doesn't make sense to destroy rare native grasslands and oak woodlands and replace them with grizzly bears that are extinct in California.

Mack Casterman, a conservation analyst with California Native Plant Society, said the plan is costly to taxpayers (who approved bond measures to pay for parts of the project) and to the environment. "We would dispute that money that has not yet arrived in Oakland is something anyone can count on, especially in today's economy," he said.

The zoo said it has worked long and hard to amend plans to please as many people as possible.

"With any change and any new project, not everyone will be satisfied, but we worked hard to listen to the public's concerns, and where feasible we've incorporate proposed modifications to the project, including habitat enhancement, scaling back the perimeter fence and public access walking path," Dehejia said. "And more importantly, we believe the zoo has thoughtfully designed an interpretive center for future residents of Oakland and visitors to Oakland."

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